S. Quinlan Arlington

S. Quinlan Arlington
Study Abroad in History and Business – Spring 2013
My name is Quinlan, and I am a sophomore from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, studying Chemical Engineering and probably pursuing a Masters in Materials Engineering. I am currently most of the way through my wonderful semester abroad here at Queen Mary, University of London. My hobbies include cooking, playing the tuba, 10-pin bowling, and playing Magic the Gathering. My eventual goal is to become a patent attorney, most likely in the UK. Back at Stevens, I am a tour guide and a teaching assistant, and I currently serve as the Chairman of the Stevens Honor Board.

Thoughts From Home

I have been back in the United States for about a month and a half, now, and I still miss London pretty much every day. The public transportation, the city life, and the friends I made are all dear to me and though I wish that I could go back, I could not be happier to have spent five months in the best city on Earth. I recently received my final marks from courses, which seemed to mark a good time to finish off my blogging for Queen Mary with some closing remarks on coursework expectations and course selection.

As a Chemical Engineering major, finding courses that were accepted at my home university was fine. I was able to identify three, but only one was offered in the spring semester. Sadly that module conflicted with every other module I had signed up for, and I had to drop it. So there I was, an engineering major taking three history classes and a business class — Corporate Law and Governance. I remember very well being told during the study-abroad orientation that no student should take a level six (senior in US terms) course outside of their major. I ignored those instructions and took Corporate Law because I spoke to a representative of the Business school as well as the professor, and they both said that as there was no pre-requisite knowledge, all it would take was diligence. I am glad that I took their advice, for the class added some much desired diversity in my course-load. However, I would suggest that regardless of the course level (4, 5, or 6), future study abroad students contact the department or the professor to determine what pre-requisite knowledge is required or expected, and determine whether the syllabus really matches up with what they want to learn during their time in London.

As for grades, this was my hardest semester in University, as I was unused to the requirements of liberal arts courses. I ended the semester with three upper level second honors (high B/ low A) in the history courses, and a first class honors in Corporate Law and Governance. Overall, I was a tad disappointed with my performance, but I understand that the curriculum in most UK universities is very demanding and I was taking upper level courses in disciplines which I am unused to. The fact that I was able to excel in Corporate Law, though, goes to show that a level 6 course — even outside of one’s major — can be perfectly feasible provided you have the interest and the dedication.

I wish anyone reading this the best of luck choosing their modules, and encourage you to go out and enjoy London to its fullest! So far, University has been an undeniably enjoyable experience for me, and studying abroad has been its highlight.

Cheers,

-S. Quinlan Arlington

Traveling

Compared to most of my fellow American study abroad students, I have done fairly little traveling whilst at QMUL. I am currently in Paris for a few days, on my last trip away from London. I have also visited Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, as well as several cities within England. So, while I admit I am far from the best person to write about traveling during a study abroad session, I have a few pieces of advice I think are worth sharing.

First and foremost, do not be afraid to travel alone. I did not come with a study abroad group, and when I was planning my first trip, I did not know anybody who wanted to do a circuit of England (with a stop-off in Cardiff). I therefore booked all my own train tickets, rooms in B&Bs (which I will discuss in a minute), and arranged to visit two friends, one in Lincoln and one in Oxford. I am used to traveling alone, in the physical moving from place-to-place sense, as I have flown from one coast of the USA to the other on my own easily 10 times. I also came to England alone and was in a hostel for several days with no company, so I was somewhat prepared for this trip. Some of the major upsides of traveling alone are that you can visit whatever attractions you want, spend as long as you want at each site, and choose your own restaurants all without worrying about your party members.

However, it can be a bit lonesome, so whilst I went to Scotland alone, I met up with some friends in Ireland for a 3-day coach tour. Though I discovered that it is indeed much more sociable when traveling in a group, it can also be much more expensive. Where I am happy just eating a fresh baguette for lunch and having a light dinner, the group went out for every lunch and dinner as well as pubs afterwards. The cost of the trip was extravagant compared to my other travels. I decided to come to Paris alone, partially because my travel budget was very low, but I am glad to say that I will be meeting up with Emma — a friend I made when she visited another study abroad student in London.

The second piece of advice I would suggest is not to be afraid of using Airbnb, a service which helps people to rent out sections of (or the entirety of) their flats. I have so far stayed in flats in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Bath, Salisbury, and Paris, and all of them have been quite affordable (at least as cheap as a hostel) for a single bedroom with other amenities. If you travel in a group, hostels are a much better choice, but if you go alone, I highly recommend checking out Airbnb. A brief disclaimer, though: though I have had great experiences, please do use caution. Only stay in places with reviews, and be sure to exercise due care with your valuables.

Due to the UK system of having all examinations at the end of the spring semester (unlike semesterly finals in the USA), the finals period is quite long, and the Easter holiday which preceded it was also several weeks. This means that for students coming in the spring, there are large gaps where you can travel, whether it be mainly in the EU or mainly in the UK. I personally came to London (and to England as a whole) to determine if I wanted to attempt to emigrate when I finish university. As such, my main goal was to experience the United Kingdom, with an emphasis on England. As you can tell from my travel itineraries, that is what I did. If any of you are likewise trying to determine if the country is a good fit for you, I wholly suggest you travel outside of just London. Though it is my favourite city, it is also not representative of the nation as a whole. Places like Lincoln, Oxford and Bath let you see very different sides of English culture. For me, at the very least, they helped to cement my love of this great nation.

-S. Quinlan Arlington, 9-5-13

Coursework v Homework

Coming to the UK from a US university, the term “coursework” was relatively new to me. It seemed to me to carry meaning essentially equivalent to “homework” back home, but I can now explicitly state that they are far from synonymous. In the US, “homework” is used to apply to virtually everything assigned by a professor to be completed by a student outside of class time. This includes problem sets, essays, mandatory reading, and physical design projects. The majority of these assignments are graded, however sometimes the course merely requires completion.

In the UK, though, coursework constitutes the entirety of the graded non-examination portion of a course — mandatory reading or ungraded assignments do not count. This difference, however, is relatively small. The main reason that I think a direct comparison of American homework and British coursework is invalid comes down to the grading break-down in the UK versus that in America. I will limit my discourse here to humanities courses, for that is what I have the most experience with in the UK. (However, from what I know, the relative weighting of examinations is relatively similar across all disciplines.)

In the US, humanities classes will usually have weekly reading assignments, multiple essays due throughout the semester, a midterm examination, and a final exam. The essays may be worth between 10-20% a piece, the midterm up to 20%, and the final up to 25%. In the UK, the grade breakdown is much less forgiving. A single coursework essay is often worth up to 50% of your grade, and one of my finals this semester is worth 70%. Similarly, where attendance often counts for 10-15% of a student’s grade in the US, it almost never plays a part in the UK.

If my point has not gotten across yet, here it is: in the UK, you have less work at home, and you have fewer tests, but those few assignments and exams you have are important. Massively important. If you struggle to get a hold of this idea at the beginning of the semester, it will tear you apart towards the end, when you have three to five grade-determining essays due within a few weeks of each other. They all need to be well-researched, well thought out, and well written if you want to get a first — so the best advice I can give is to make sure you read through the coursework prompts early on. Get a handle on your research before it is too late, and learn to make use of the library on campus along with its online sources.

Beyond that, though, be prepared to use off-campus libraries as well. The British Library is about 30 minutes away, and offers virtually anything you could need to research your essays, but to use it you need to prepare in advance. Visit the Student Inquiry Centre in the Queen’s Building to get a proof of habitation on campus, and make sure you bring a valid form of photographic ID as well as a prepared list of materials you need. You can request more once there, but you will need to prove you have a valid reason to get a reader’s pass. (It is worth noting you can expedite this process by pre-registering online.)

Now, I know as well as any university student, telling a student to start their work earlier will almost never make a difference, but I cannot stress the importance (in humanities classes) of reading your coursework essay prompts as soon as you can. They are usually available at the start of the course, and if you have a general idea what you may end up wanting to write about, it allows you to be more focused in what readings you do beyond the minimum, and moreover when it comes to the week(s) where that topic is covered in particular, you will be more likely to pay close attention to the material. Harkening back to my last post, do not be surprised when your scores on these major coursework essays are not up to your standard back in the US. A score above 75 here really is remarkable!

 

On a completely unrelated note, I baked bread again this Monday, and my wheat loaf came out much better than last time. It is a lot less sweet, due to having a lower honey content, but the consistency is much closer to what I was looking for.  

 

This second time around, the whole process went much more smoothly, and I hope that it shows a general trend towards becoming a better baker. As soon as I get another thing of Maple Syrup, I will see how this bread holds up as french toast– if I am honest, that is one of the most important tests. Obviously the most important test — as I feel certain my mother would verify — is how it tastes with a large hunk of cheese melted on it. Thankfully, I can verify that this loaf with some classic extra-mature British cheddar is excellent. Semi-unhelpful hint, then: bake your own bread. It is only somewhat-massively time consuming, and it has a few mild perks.

-S. Quinlan Arlington, 27-03-13

Grade Shock

The educational system in the United Kingdom is vastly different from that of the United States. (Side note: I cannot make any direct comparisons to any other nations, for I am woefully unknowledgeable about their schemas.) The first difference which is important to know if you hail from the US is that here the terms “college” and “university” have different meanings here than in the US. Back in the States, universities are conglomerations of colleges, each of which has its own curriculum but is generally under the authority of the University. In many schools in the United States, this distinction is irrelevant and the terms are interchangeable, but one example is Harvard. Harvard College is one of the two schools of Harvard University that grant undergraduate degrees. (However, alumni such as my dear sister generally just say “I went to Harvard” when asked about their undergraduate career.”)

In the UK, though, college is a precursor to university, and also goes by the name “sixth form.” Sixth form colleges offer two year programs in-between high school and University, and are where UK students study for their A-level examinations. These examinations are the basis of admissions to university, and students generally do a preparatory program aimed directly at the degree they wish to perform at University. This has a two important impacts on university life that US study abroad students should be aware of:

1) You get looked at strangely if you use the words college and university interchangeably.

2) First year university students in the UK often have equal or superior qualifications than 2nd year university students in the US, unless those US students did extensive Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate work in high school.

A third impact which is less relevant to study abroad is that it shortens the ‘university’ study length, where most degrees in the UK take only 3 years at university, with a fourth year often tacked on for a Master’s degree.

 

The second main difference in the overall education schema comes in the grading scheme used in the UK. The concept of a GPA (Grade Point Average) is foreign to them. Similarly, a phrase like “I got straight A’s last semester” means little. Grades here are not done on a letter basis, instead they tie in to the “honours” attached to your degree. The highest degree you can be awarded is a First Class Honours, followed by Second Class Honours Upper Division, Second Class Honours Lower Division, and finally Third Class Honours. You can also simply be awarded an “ordinary degree” with no honours — the equivalent of graduating with a D-for-diploma average in the United States. This means that instead of talking about “working hard to get an A” you hear discussions of “trying to get a First.”

Apart from the difference in terminology, the grading scale is massively different. The following is my mock-up of a side-by-side comparison of typical US and UK grade range distributions. Keep in mind, though, this varies from course to course and school to school.

Grade: US Percentage UK Percentage
A/First 90-100 70-100
B to B+/Upper Second 83-90 60-70
C+ to B- /Lower Second 77-82 50-59
C/Third 70-77 45-50
D/Pass 60-70 40-45

Thus, where in the US a grade in the mid-seventies is relatively mediocre, here it is in the highest bracket. This understandably causes some shock when you get your assignments back and your grade at the top looks like something you would hide from your parents in elementary school. I recently got a paper back on which I received a 78.  The feedback form had it marked as “excellent” on all of the 8 criteria listed, and there was only one mildly critical comment given throughout the paper. Naturally, coming from years of the US schema, the grade of 78 and the comments given seemed incompatible, but it is good to keep in mind that in the UK grades of over 80% are almost never seen on assignments like this — they are almost analogous to getting over 100 in the United States.

As this is the time of year when all the deadlines for massive coursework essays start to collide for those of us studying humanities, I will be sure to write more in depth on the differences between the US and UK higher education as it pertains to the grading breakdown of courses. Spoilers: you have less homework here, but it is worth a lot more and your finals basically make or break your grade.

-S. Quinlan Arlington, 19-03-2013

Post Scriptum To anyone in the US reading this, you may notice that I give my dates the wrong way around. Get used to that if you plan on studying in the UK, it will cause massive confusion if you firmly stick to the US way of writing dates. And to be fair, I am pretty sure we are the only ones that do it MM-DD-YYYY.

The Price of London

There is no getting around it: living in London is expensive. If you compare the costs of living to some of the priciest areas in the US such as Manhattan, virtually everything is more expensive here. To give a rough estimate; imagine the price of any item in a Manhattan shop, reduce it by about 10% and then change the $ to a £. What with the current exchange rate of roughly $1.50/£1.00, everything in London is usually at least 35% pricier.

The most important thing that new students (or study abroad students) can do to cut costs is to learn to eat at home. And by that I most certainly do not mean buy pre-made or frozen meals and take them home. Eating out in London is extremely expensive, and while buying groceries here is also costlier than it is elsewhere, it is miles cheaper than dining out — even at the dozens of cheap halal chicken joints near campus.

The great thing about cooking is that the more effort you put in, not only do your dishes become more delicious, but you also gain a very valuable life skill. Also, the more ‘from scratch’ you are willing to make, the chances are the more you will save. I cooked for myself the semester before I came to QMUL as well, but my roommate back home was easily satisfied (pasta virtually every meal) so I never branched out that much when I was cooking for the both of us. (Also, the fact that dinner at my favourite food joint in town cost me $4.15 made eating out a bit more feasible.) This semester, though, I can count the dinners I have had out on one hand and I have taught myself to cook/bake a variety of new dishes — all from scratch. A brief sample of that list includes enchiladas; beer, cheese, and mustard pull-apart bread; honey-wheat bread; pancakes (and I mean American pancakes, not those slightly-thicker crepes that Brits eat when they ought to be celebrating Mardi Gras); mushroom ravioli; sundried-tomato alfedo sauce; cheesecake; and, most recently, chocolate-raspberry tarts (pictured below).

 

As a side note about the tarts, I made two batches, one with a digestives crust, one with a cream-cheese based crust. The cream-cheese crust was much easier to make, held form better, and cooled faster. All in all, I would suggest it over digestives for any small-form baking, though the same crust worked pretty well for my cheesecake earlier this semester.

Obviously, if you want to be as cheap as possible, making things like cheesecake or sundried-tomato alfredo sauce is not going to be on your itinerary. That being said, I can tell you that eating pasta every day gets old very, very fast. Well, at least for most of us. Either way, I eat pasta at most twice a week here, and always with some fresh vegetables involved in some way. It is a great way to learn a life-skill, stay healthy (ish), and save money all in one!

As a disclaimer, this is probably far from the last time I will extol the virtues of cooking at university; I think a run-down of the local shops, what is cheapest where, and an analysis of the pros/cons of ordering groceries online may be useful to anyone considering studying at QMUL. For now, though, I am off to a dinner party with my tarts!

-S. Quinlan Arlington 16-03-13

 

New Year’s Fireworks

I came to London several days before Queen Mary opened for the semester for the sole purpose of watching the fireworks at the London Eye. Not knowing anybody in London, I stayed at a youth hostel for a few days, and went to Westminster bridge with a few people I met at the hostel. The firework show was excellent, and the view from the bridge was excellent!

The London Eye four hours before the big show.

The London Eye in the midst of the fireworks.

 

To any students considering a spring semester study abroad at Queen Mary, I would suggest coming to see the fireworks unless you have some specific New Years plans. It was a great cultural experience as well as a wonderful show. The days between the fireworks and Queen Mary opening offer a prime time to explore London — visiting Bond/Oxford street in time for the tail-end of the Christmas displays. It also gives you time to learn how to travel London — and if you follow Melanie’s three-part guide to London’s public transit, you will be set for the rest of your time here.

A great thing about wandering through London is the sheer number of museums, art galleries, and locations of historical significance you pass through. When my friend and I embarked from Waterloo on a quest to find Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a wonderfully historic pub on Fleet Street, we ended up passing all sorts of sights — including Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey to name a few. I honestly cannot extol the virtues of wandering through London enough, it is one of the best ways to get to see the city as a whole rather than visiting only specific sites and missing the big-picture view of the city.

As a last note, if you are interested in a truly unique and historical dining experience, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a magnificent place to visit. It was first built in 1538, and rebuilt after the Great Fire in 1666. The premises have not been modernized in the way most old pubs have, so it has many small bar areas over several floors, low ceilings, and somewhat cramped quarters. However, it is a great taste of a pub experience in the 16th or 17th century.

-S. Quinlan Arlington, 14 March 2013

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